The Bell Jar at 40
Sylvia Plath's YA novel reaches middle age.
by Emily Gould

The Bell Jar had been published in the UK under a pseudonym, to middling reviews, in 1963. American publishers had turned it down then, finding it deficient in plot and cohesion—“We didn’t feel you had managed to use your materials successfully in a novelistic way,” one editor wrote to Plath. A few weeks later, Plath, estranged from Hughes and living alone in London with their two small children, gassed herself. The posthumous publication of Ariel, a collection of poems written in a blaze of creativity during the last months of Plath’s life, brought her worldwide renown. Hughes seems to have assumed that this would prompt American editors to reverse their initial opposition to the novel, though in his letter to Aurelia Plath he made clear his low opinion of the book, suggesting that in a few more years it would be of interest merely as a “curiosity for students.” Aurelia Plath protested the plan; she saw the novel as representing the “basest ingratitude” toward the people her daughter had caricatured, including herself. Hughes ignored her, and The Bell Jar was published by Harper & Row in 1971. It has remained in print continuously ever since.

It’s always interesting when a very strange book is also an enduringly popular book. The Bell Jar has sold more than three million copies and is a mainstay of American high school English classes; it was made into a movie in 1979, and another version, starring Julia Stiles, is currently in production. Like The Catcher in the Rye, it is a touchstone for a certain kind of introspective, moody teenager—the kind of teenager who used to listen to the Cure and, later on, Tori Amos, and who these days listens to—actually I have no idea, but she definitely has a blog. (There are an amazing variety of embarrassing shrines to The Bell Jar online.) Unlike Catcher, it also has other sources of partisan support: feminists of the 1970s claimed Plath as a martyred patron saint of repressive domesticity, and mental illness advocates have found in her work easily identifiable symptoms and syndromes that were misdiagnosed and barbarically treated.

As much as it was initially underappreciated by the British press, The Bell Jar was overpraised on its American publication. As such, it has frustrated generations of critics and biographers by refusing to be quite the great novel you’d want a great poet’s only novel to be. The book’s appeal comes into focus only when a reader drops her outsized expectations; after that, a more complex story reveals itself. Under the pretense of describing mental breakdown and recovery, Plath was free to bare her stand-in narrator’s nastiest, most selfish impulses. In doing so, she both dramatized and exemplified the conflict inherent in trying to be both a great writer and a nice person.

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I found this to be interesting and topical
Quote Originally Posted by Emily Gould
Like many American girls, I first read The Bell Jar when I was around 14. The parts I found most striking then were about Esther losing her virginity—the blood soaking a towel, turning the towel black! Could that really happen?—and about seeing a penis for the first time: “the only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.” I also remember being struck by the famous passage about Esther imagining all her potential futures like ripe figs hanging from the branches of a tree:

One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor. . . . I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

* * *

Between Plath’s work and the memoir literature surrounding it, in which Hughes is defended as the victim of Plath’s moodiness and unwarranted jealous rages, in which A. Alvarez can begin his famous essay on Plath’s suicide in his Savage God by telling us that she was “not pretty” and that her hair smelled bad—reading and thinking about the generations of women who had to suffer this kind of knee-jerk condescension from men, you begin to wonder how it was that any woman managed not to put her head in an oven before approximately 1968. Plath’s classmate in Robert Lowell’s poetry seminar, Anne Sexton, did eventually kill herself, too, but Plath’s sometime rival Adrienne Rich did not. Many millions did not. Why not? The situation was intolerable. How could anyone tolerate it?

Of course not everyone was as sensitive as Plath was, and not everyone was such a compulsive overachiever. Trying to be all things to all people, especially if two of those things are “creative genius” and “mother,” still seems like a recipe for unhappiness, if not certain death. While I do think of Plath as a feminist icon, I don’t think it’s necessary to essentialize her in the way the feminists who chipped “Hughes” off her gravestone did. Those feminists want Plath to be a victim—specifically, a victim of Hughes and America’s repressive 1950s perfect-housewife culture. And Plath was a victim: a victim of not being able to see any situation she was in clearly. She wanted very badly to live in a reality where she was a good, kind person who was also a good mother, but that part of her was always fighting with being a very selfish person who wanted to devote time and resources to her work. Which is a perfectly reasonable thing to want—it’s just not compatible with being a pretty, popular girl who is nice to everyone all the time. Instead of acknowledging this impossibility, Plath tried to keep both sides of herself going until the whole precarious enterprise broke down. It broke down in New York, and then it broke down again, forever, ten years later in London.